Movement Lessons From a Baby Part 1: Reflexes and Curiosity
The way we learn to move as babies and kids has much to teach us about retaining or regaining some of our youthful physical vitality.
We come into this world with very floppy bodies and little ability to control them. Our feet can go in our mouths but we can’t control our enormous heads.
We begin life with a set of primitive movement reflexes that is far more limited in functionality than other mammals. Driven by curiosity for our new world, we earn the rest of our strength and coordination by experimenting with our bodies to figure out how to move around.
The process we go through is fairly predictable. It begins with turning and lifting our heads to look around and then proceeds through reaching and grasping, rolling, propping on hands, half kneeling, rocking on hands and knees, crawling, climbing, falling, walking, and so on, with many intermediate steps along the way.
Learning these movements in their proper sequence predisposes us towards patterns that help us function well throughout our lives. Research in child development shows that these steps are crucial not only for our ability to move optimally throughout our lives, but also for the integration of sensory experience in our brains and our cognitive, emotional and social development.
We can think of the developmental movement sequence as part of the recipe for making a functional human.
If our development is healthy enough, we get stronger and more coordinated. If our environment allows and encourages it we run, play, climb, explore and tumble through our physical world in all manner of ways. Barring acute trauma or disease, we have a number of years of generally pain-free and easy movement. The bumps and bruises are part of learning. We don’t have to think about our posture, breathing or moving in a way that doesn’t cause us pain. For a while, our bodies just work beautifully, as the highly adaptable natural systems that they are.
We call this natural functioning reflexive stability, which is the unconscious coordination of our muscles that optimally balances stability and mobility across our body as we move.
Then life happens. Our curiosity moves on to other things. We develop our own unique ways of moving in the world in response to work and play, stress and pleasure, anxiety and joy. Our food and surroundings support or hinder our vitality. Maybe we stop moving our bodies so much. Maybe we use them too hard. Maybe our repetitive activities involve some trade-offs in our posture and alignment. Sometimes we get injured or sick.
In the name of survival and function, our bodies develop all sorts of compensations, which is part of the genius of our evolutionary design. Humans are not inherently fragile. It takes a long accumulation of unsustainable movement patterns or significant trauma before we start to unravel.
However, we know what happens when we use or neglect something in way that conflicts with its inherent design. In our case, the evolution of our culture proceeded tremendously faster than the adaptations of our physiology. Our bodies are tuned to a world very different than the ones our minds have created.
We're not in Kansas anymore.
Cave Man With Fast Food by Banksy
We know that an overly sedentary life leads to aches, pains, and unsteadiness while contributing to lifestyle ailments such as obesity, diabetes, and heart disease. Our bodies need to be challenged and they need to move in a variety of ways. We also know that when our bodies are pushed - by accumulated stresses, too little nourishment, or too much of the wrong kind of movement - beyond our capacity for recovery and repair, the system has a way of slowing us down whether we want to or not.
Part of the beauty of our original movement recipe is that the ingredients which originally shaped our nervous system and tissues can be used later in life to restore reflexive stability, and to help nudge the system back towards integrated wholeness.
Researchers and clinicians in the field of developmental kinesiology are finding that restoring reflexive stability is enhanced by working with patients in a sequence of specific positions similar to the developmental postures and movements that babies work through. The developmental movement approach speeds the body's learning curve from conscious rehab exercises to subconscious function. This approach has been used for decades to successfully treat children with cerebral palsy and is gaining traction in the wider physical rehabiliation world.
We can incorporate these insights into our own basic maintenance. Whether we need to wake up long dormant muscles and movement patterns, balance out the effects of hard-driving activities, or tap into our innate reflexive strength for more efficient performance, we all have the capacity for renewal and resilience.
In addition to the physical positions and movements we see in babies, we can also learn from the the spirit of exploration that animates our earliest actions. As adults we can bring that sense of curiosity about our outer environment and focus it back towards the sometimes unknown land of the subtle sensations in our bodies.
This sense of feeling into your body - called interoception - is an important skill to cultivate. It becomes a touchstone to help us evaluate movements and postures and even our experience of situations and environments. It can become an anchor for mindfulness that deepens the quality of all of our experiences.
Researchers are showing that interoceptive skill is crucial to healing chronic pain, addiction, and the effects of trauma.
Interoception: a DIY job
Take a few minutes in your day to do a body scan from toe to cranium.
Take note of any painful parts without judgement,
then look beyond them to areas that don’t shout so loudly in your awareness.
What parts feel tight or warm or throbbing or light or stiff or energetic?
Tune into the points of contact between your body and whatever is supporting you.
Tune into areas that you don’t normally pay attention to.
The muscles around your eyes. Your throat. The back of your head. Your pelvic floor.
Where is your breath moving in your body?
In future posts, I will explore what the science of developmental movement has to teach us about regenerative movement practices for adults, and will offer simple exercises inspired by a baby’s movement patterns.
The exercises can be incorporated into a morning routine, included in a pre-workout warm-up, or used as mind-body “reset” during the day to help rebalance and calm ourautonomic nervous system, reintegrate muscle function across our bodies, and help restore the right balance of stability and mobility to our joints. Moreover, the exercises are invitations to cultivate interoceptive awareness. They are not prescriptions, but rather jumping off points for your own explorations.
For now, check out how curiosity and play drive Baby Liv to experiment with what her body can do. Note how her body responds by learning to coordinate previously disparate body parts into ever more complicated and functional patterns.